Philobiblon: Review: Samuel Palmer at the British Museum

Friday, November 25, 2005

Review: Samuel Palmer at the British Museum

The introduction to Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape describes the artist as "one of Britain's greatest painters". Certainly a couple of his works are among of the nation's most reproduced. And this exhibition, which traces his entire career, suggests that "one of the most talented" would be a fair label. Overall, however, what is on display is a talent dissipated by the pressures of Victorian life.

The British Museum exhibition traces in detail not just his work, but his curiously modern life. A self-portrait at the age of about 19 shows a soulful young man, far too serious for his age. A Romantic, destined to die young, you would think. Yet his work at this time is conventional, picturesque landscape - one watercolors closely resembling a painting manual's model. (Echoes of the veteran controversy.)

But soon he was to find a mentor. He credited the artist John Lunnell with his transformation, describing him as "a good angel from Heaven to pluck me from the pit of modern art". A sketchbook from 1824 shows a study of "The Bad Thief", a powerful, contorted figure menaced by a shark-mouthed Satan.

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